Small business advice: finding it, taking it, knowing if it's right

Small business advice: finding it, taking it, knowing if it's right

Utilising the knowledge of others is an essential skill for any business owner - you just can't do business without it. No person can do or know everything, be qualified in everything or keep up to date in everything that can impact your business.

It sounds pretty straightforward: you find a source for the expertise that you need, you get advice/information, implement it and (hey presto!) you get the outcome that you want. In an ideal world that would be the process, but in reality it can be a minefield ..and you can easily find a land-mine rather than a gold-mine. Even professional advisers don't always get it right. This article explores a few things to look out for.

Where to look. 

Finding information, advice and opinions on any given topic is not a challenge. There are countless people willing to let you know what they think - in person, online, in the media, etc. For ease of discussion, I have created a few categories:

  • Personal (inexperienced) are the most common type of advice-givers. As soon as you get into business the 'experts' suddenly come out of the woodwork.. family members, friends and even randoms at the pub will be spouting off on topics from marketing, how to hire the right people or telling you what their uncle/cousin/best friend did in their business. Watch out for these people as they usually have more bravado than they do expertise.
  • Impersonal sources include any source that just presents ideas, opinions or advice such as books, media, blogs (like this one), forums, Facebook, email, TV and radio shows. The information is presented for you to absorb, decipher and use as you will, without any implementation or personalisation. This is usually the cheapest way to get information (which makes it appealing) but it's very easy to implement the ideas incorrectly.
  • Personal (professional) is advice given by an expert or professional that works in that field. They will provide specific advice that is tailored to your situation, so you don't have to wade through articles and theories, you can ask questions to clarify and they can usually implement for you / with you. Common advisors in this category include accountants, coaches, lawyers and consultants. This is the most expensive form of advice, but the most reliably effective..
  • Personal (experienced and knowledgeable). I define as this as advice is given by someone who knows what they are talking about, but aren't engaged as your professional advisor. This may be someone who has had a business before or is a professional in a particular area but working elsewhere, such as a friend who is a web developer or a marketing professional. The information may not be as tailored or structured as the professionals but usually some pearls of wisdom are given. You will usually have to implement yourself. This advice is usually free.

It starts with a question

Before heading off to collect all-and-any information you can, you need to know what question you want answered or what piece of advice you need. Know your question, challenge or issue first, so you know who to ask or where to look. Know what you want to achieve first so you can weigh up your options before you decide where to go.

It's not the information that is key, it's the question

One thing I commonly see, especially with those starting off in business, is that business owners get overwhelmed with the amount of information available. As an exercise, do a quick search on recruitment and see how much information there is. It's pretty easy to get lost in it all an end up with "analysis paralysis" because you don't know which advice to follow. If you are in a haze and aren't sure whether you need help with Getting a professional in to help you sort put your greatest needs can be helpful. I have done many business analyses for businesses to help cut through the clutter and create a list of priorities.

How to choose

Once you have determined what question you need an answer to then you can go about finding that information or advice. Here are a few considerations to make the selection more straightforward:

  • Price. How much you have to spend can narrow down the sources considerably. Professional advice is always best but if you have a low budget that may not be an option. You may also find a business mentor or a government-subsidised program.
  • Complexity. Is the information complex? will you need someone to explain it to you and show you how to implement? Is it a long way outside your usual area of expertise? If this is the situation then professional advice is really your only option. Accounting and legal are two areas that are very difficult to manage without expert advice.
  • What information is available? With the diverse range of sources, programs and advisors available, do some homework to see what is available before committing.
  • Frequency and duration. How frequently and for how long do you need the advice?
  • Impact on the business. What is the potential return or risk to the business?

How do you trust the advice?

Getting advice doesn't mean automatic success or the getting outcome that you want - even if you are paying for it. Considering the ramifications, it's a good idea to know who is giving it, what their education or experience is and something about their track record.

Even real experts aren't always great. Every business has an accountant, some of whom are not worth their fees. One manufacturing business that I worked with had a series of accountants over 3 years, each giving worse advice that the last. The business went into unnecessary receivership twice! As always, asking questions ahead of time can save a lot of headache later. To keep your risk to a minimum:

  • get advice from several sources to see what is reasonable.
  • know about the source of the advice... what is the advisor's knowledge? skill? experience?
  • do you know anyone else who has used their advice? If not, ask them or see who their clients are
  • where does the interest lie in their advice? They must be more interested in you than they are in themselves
  • does their advice feel authentic? they must have real life small business experience. Make sure they know about small business from being in one, not reading about it.
  • do they spend more time listening or talking? You are the star in this relationship, so you would expect them to listen then give short, sage advice.
  • start off slowly. If you feel confident, start off with a small (cheaper) commitment that allows you to see how they operate before committing to anything bigger.

Even after you get the advice, you may not use all of it. It needs to be adapted to your own situation, preferences and in your own style. Have the confidence in yourself to know what is right for you and your business. 

It is common for advisors to cross into other areas that may not be their core competency. Accountants often give 'business advice' for example, that falls a long way outside taxation or financial management. Web developers often give social media advice.

Actually taking the advice

Taking advice goes against many natural instincts. Once you have confidence in the source of the advice, ingest and absorb it. Go slowly but proactively. Implement. But most of all, keep questioning what is happening and review the results frequently.

Dr Warren Harmer 


Warren Harmer

Warren Harmer

Owner at The Business Plan Company

Small, fast growing and entrepreneurial businesses are my passion. I like to write business plans for them, grow them, advise them and write about them. My experience now spans over 17 years, including 3 businesses of my own. My objective is to offer instructive, hands-on, ‘how to’ information to make business ownership easier, less stressful, more successful and more enjoyable.

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Kathie Bolitho

Kathie Bolitho , DIrector at Tough Cookie Marketing

I really enjoyed this article, you are so right about how hard it can be to work out what advice to trust. Everyone has a suggestion, opinion and answer for you. Thank you!

Warren Harmer

Warren Harmer , Owner at The Business Plan Company

Thanks Kathie.